Sunday, March 29, 2009

Pilgrimage (1933)

The gem of the new "Ford at Fox" set is this 1933 melodrama filled with Ford's favorite themes. Profoundly sad, moving and sentimental, this film marks the beginning of Ford's mature style in the sound era.

The story involves a small town mother, Hannah Jessop, played to perfection by Henrietta Crossman in the role of a lifetime. Norman Foster turns in a surprisingly subtle performance as her son, Jim, who is engaged to be married to the daughter of a local drunk. When Hannah finds out about this, she signs Jim up for the draft, whereupon he is shipped off to war. During a brief layover in his home town, Jim learns that his fiancee is pregnant, but he is killed in France before being able to return home to marry her. The rest of the film deals with Hannah's coming to terms with her relationship with her son during a visit to France to visit his grave.

"Pilgrimage" has been referred to as a "women's picture", which might surprise casual viewers more familiar with Ford's macho stories of tradition in the face of battle. What is remarkable about the film is that Ford's direction keeps the story from ever becoming mawkish or overly sentimental, preferring instead to portray the strong and noble qualities of his characters. Hannah Jessop is a remarkably defined character, helped in no small part by the incredible performance of Henrietta Crossman (it is truly surprising that she didn't have more of a career in films). Ford steers clear of cloying, manipulative sentimentality by portraying Hannah as a flawed woman, driven to despair by her own sense of self-righteousness. In one scene, she expresses regret over hiding her selfishness under the guise of "Christian" values. Realizing that her stubbornness has cost her son his life, she shows her change of heart by helping out another young couple whom she meets in France, and whose situation resembles that of her own son and his fiancee.

To dismiss "Pilgrimage" as a "women's picture" is to deny the raw emotional intensity of what Ford accomplishes here. He puts his audience, as well as his characters, on an emotional rollercoaster by indulging in his penchant for rustic, "cornball" humor between the film's more heart-wrenching moments. The extended visit to France provides a good opportunity for some "small town folks in a strange land" type of humor, which is interesting in pitting the stereotypical rustic types against the "sophisticated" urban types. In doing so, Ford draws an interesting parallel between the clearly distinct types of films so popular during the period in which the film was made (directors like Ford and Capra tended to portray smaller, even rural environments, while Lubitsch, say, or Stevens, focused on an upper-middle to upper class urban milieu). It has the effect of giving the film a truly encompassing, human-epic feel. There is a particularly funny moment at a shooting gallery, in which Hannah surprises the onlookers with her sharpshooting skill. It ends with a ridiculous bit of corny humor that is so silly and good-natured that it's impossible not to laugh.

Stylistically, Ford plays with some of the classical conventions in which he was working. An unusual approach used early on in the film features the actors speaking directly into the camera, rather than looking slightly off-screen in the direction of the character to whom they're speaking. It seems to have been an effect that Ford abandoned, as it really doesn't turn up in his later work, or even in the later scenes of this film.

The cinematography, by George Schneiderman, is gorgeous, particularly in the rural scenes. Ford frames his actors in deep focus shots, allowing the backgrounds to sprawl out behind them for as far as the camera can see. There is one scene, in particular, where Norman Foster's character leaves his home at night to meet with his fiancee, that shows the influence of F.W. Murnau and of German Expressionism in general which had so affected Ford's style in the late 1920s. Indeed, the theme of the film resembles those he dealt with in his seminal 1928 work, "Four Sons".

Ford's theme of Catholic guilt is very heavy throughout the film. There is a scene in particular, in which the mayor of the town tries to convince Hannah to make the trip to France to pay tribute to her son, and to represent the town. He shames her into going, playing on her guilt, while in the next scene, as he is seeing her off on the train, tells her how "proud" the whole town is of her. There is a particularly painful scene in which Hannah tells the other mothers with whom she is traveling that she doesn't deserve to be there, as she feels so wracked with guilt over her son's actions. The theme of guilt runs heavily throughout the film, serving as a catalyst for several of the film's major plot turns. As usual with a Ford film, the characters develop organically from their environment, rather than serving as pawns in the plot. Several other Fordian elements are present, including the presence of a family dog which follows Hannah around in moments of distress, and which plays an important symbolic role in the final scene.

There is no denying that Ford had developed into a full-fledged artist with a distinct style during the 1920s. In the silent film medium, his masterworks such as "The Iron Horse", "3 Bad Men" and especially "Four Sons" stand as a testament to that. With the coming of sound, however, Ford-like so many other directors-had to take time to re-adjust and to develop his style within the new medium of the talking picture. With "Pilgrimage", he emerges fully formed, displaying the kind of breadth and scope of subject matter which has earned him the reputation as America's finest filmmaker.

"Pilgrimage" is available on DVD through the "Ford at Fox" collection, in a pristine restored print. The disc features an optional commentary track by Ford biographer Joseph McBride, and comes with my highest recommendation.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The First Films

Question: when was the first movie made?

Ask this question to ten different historians and you will receive ten different answers. For years it was fashionable to say that cinema was "born" on the night of December 28, 1895 in Paris, when the Lumieres held their famous first screening (in actuality, it wasn't even the Lumiere's first screening, let alone the first screening before an audience anywhere in the world).

Others will say that it was Edison, with films like "The Sneeze" and "Sandow", although of course Edison's own output goes back earlier than that.

Still some will make a case for one of the sadly neglected, often overlooked pioneers like Max Skladanowsky in Berlin, or William Friese-Greene in England, or France's Augustin Le Prince (who actually did succeed in capturing a few frames of motion as early as 1888, but never perfected playback of his device-despite persistent rumors to the contrary-and disappeared under mysterious circumstances before he could make any more progress).

Thanks to a joint effort between Kino on Video and the Museum of Modern Art, we can now get a little closer at looking at the beginning of film, at least from the Edison company.

The two earliest experiments on the set are called "Monkeyshines" (nos. 1 and 2). Dating from sometime in late 1889 or early 1890, the fragments (or what survives of them, at least), represent nothing so much as a series of very blurry still photographs.

The second film offers a slight improvement on the sharpness of the image, but is still a blur in terms of its movement.

These images were played back on a cylindrical device that could be cranked by hand. The images were run in front of a little viewer, creating the illusion of continuous movement-sort of a "live action" version of the Zoetrope. While these represent an important step toward the eventual development of the full blown movie, I feel that they are closer to the "series photography" of Eadweard Muybridge or Jules-Etienne Marey than they are to the moving picture that Edison and his chief developer, W.K.L. Dickson, would eventually arrive at.

An important development came in 1891, when Dickson completed the "Dickson Greeting" test, in which the inventor steps before the camera and removes his hat. This film has the distinction of being the first test shown to a larger audience. Edison's wife was a member of the Federation of Womens' Clubs, and Edison arranged a demonstration for the members at his Orange facility. The event was recorded in the news of the time.

Viewed today, the film is extremely brief when projected at its proper speed. The important step is that the movement appears entirely natural. The Kino DVD offers the opportunity to view the film in a "slow motion" playback to better appreciate the individual frames.

Two more of these early camera tests are included on the disc, "Newark Athlete" and "Men Boxing", both from 1891 and both demonstrating a "natural" movement upon playback, along with a photographic clarity, missing from the first tests.

With the invention of the Kinetograph, Edison and Dickson succeeded in perfecting playback of their films within the "peepshow" viewing format. Edison, of course, preferred the "single person" viewing option of the Kinetoscope as he thought it would increase revenue by charging admission to each individual viewer rather than screening it for an entire audience. At the time (1893), it was surely enough to have perfected not only the photographing but the playback of the moving image with such natural movement, such image clarity, and for such a sustained amount of time.

What's most interesting about Edison and Dickson's "Blacksmithing Scene" from 1893 is that Dickson chose to use costumed actors for his subject. The artifice of the medium is already apparent in the staged scene, with actors (most likely other technicians) dressed in blacksmith garb, and passing around a bottle of alcohol after finishing their work. (It's also worth noting in passing that another one of Dickson's technicians-maybe even Dickson himself!-is visible in silhouette, blocking part of the image by standing in front of the camera during the first half of the film, an error oddly overlooked in many accounts of the film).

By choosing to re-create a scene from the past, Dickson was already getting at the possibilities that moving pictures provided to stage fiction as well as record reality, and how often that line would be blurred over the years. Although it may not be apparent to viewers today, at the time people would have recognized the blacksmith scene as deliberately hearkening back to a "simpler time", especially in the allowance of alcohol in the workplace (which was already frowned upon by 1893). Dickson also draws a parallel between the simpler "industrial" workers of an earlier era, and the craftsmanship of his own team of inventors who developed and built the camera being used to film it.

Most importantly, Dickson had discovered the ease of shooting in a studio. Due to the incredible size of the early camera, it made sense. The "Black Maria", Edison's studio, provided an ideal means of shooting each film, as it could turn to face the sunlight, and even had a dressing room attached for the various celebrities who would
come to be photographed before Edison's camera. Dickson's preference for shooting in the studio was certainly echoed by whole generations of filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, who found the artifice and controlled conditions of filming on a stage to be preferable to working on location.

The "Blacksmithing Scene" was also notable for being displayed at the Brooklyn Institute of Technology in 1893, providing an important step up in the public awareness of motion picture development.

Examining these early tests provides an interesting glimpse into the development of the medium in its earliest days, and as is apparent by looking at the work of just one of the people developing the motion picture at that time, we can see why it's impossible to point to any one film as the "first".

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog must surely rank as one of the most ruggedly individualistic filmmakers working today, with a kind of adventurous, "pioneer" spirit that would have made John Ford or Raoul Walsh proud.

In the past, he has explored the most obscure regions of the world in films like Aguirre the Wrath of God, and more recently in Gizzly Man, in which he ventured in to the documentary format to examine the eventual breakdown and destruction of a man at the hands of an environment he did not fully understand.

Encounters at the End of the World takes the viewer to the unexplored vastness of Antarctica. Herzog looks at the individuals who choose to come there to explore. Many of them are Ph.D.s, musicians, philosophers and other unlikely types with a passion for adventure, exploration and knowledge. Herzog shows us the practical side of their experiences (training for white-outs by placing buckets over their heads, and quickly losing all sense of direction), drilling holes in the ice for diving (and explaining that a diver must be able to find his way back to the exit or risk being trapped under hundreds of miles of ice).

He makes the point that Antarctica is largely the final frontier among the continents. Somehow it seems very appropriate that Herzog would make this film. In the process of revealing the vastness and even danger of the environment, he also paints a very revealing picture of the individuals who choose to make such exploration possible in the first place.